The cover of Newsweek last month announced, that Christianity in America is dead. Of course, another major news magazine figured this out 40 years ago, when it announced, quoting Friedrich Nietzsche that God is dead.
It turned out that that since that first publication 40 years ago, religion in America stopped its decline and began to change, and to change in a way that Newsweek today takes as normative. What exactly that change was that happened between the bookends of those two dramatic announcements has been subject to a great deal of debate. It seems that it had much to do with modernity and with the strong influence of technology and secular progress. On the one hand, the mainline Protestant churches, which saw their pews full of people in the 1950’s faced a major decline as modernity picked up and Christian theology and worship remained entrenched in its pre-modern doctrinal slumber. The people who filled the pews knew that religion as their churches preached it could not make sense of the successes of modern life. The intellectual disconnect was too much, and people left in droves. And they did not leave to go to other churches. They simply became part of the new category – un-churched. There was no place for these Christians seeking answers that made sense of their new world and its new, demytholgized and scientific viewpoint.
On the other hand, the evangelical church seemed to take root in their presentation of a “return to a fabled Christian America of yore,” to quote from Newsweek. The rise of conservative Christianity in the United States, and indeed of strictly conservative religion worldwide, had to do with its promise of a new world that was simpler; a new world were the religions’ various rules could suffice, once again; where what the presented by the religious leaders as the most important aspect of a person’s life – their inward friendship with Jesus who would bear them past their troubles to an afterlife of eternal comfort, held much interest for many, many people.
If there was one theme that was persistent through the year with these 6 confirmands, it was that there is another way. That a better world is possible, not by tearing down the old one, but by finding what is ultimately worthwhile in it, doing that not by tearing down every other worthwhile thing in the world that is less than ultimate, but an overaching commitment to that one truth which does in fact serve to make a way where there once was not. If there was one theme consistent through the year for our confirmands it was that religion is less something you put on, like some coat that you fancy in a store full of different coats, and more like something you journey into with a heart and a mind full of questions about the inspiring things of this world and of our common lives together.
We have learned that the word God is reserved for that which actually operates to save is not merely a word for some belief to which you have to assent, against your intellectual nature, in order to be saved.
The most heartening comment I think for any of us to hear, who love this church and who try to walk the way of Jesus without letting that way walk us, who feel deep in our hearts that the love and forgivness that Jesus taught was about a possibility for us that could make our lives and the lives of our neighbors more intersting and less frought with anxiety and trouble, is the comment we heard recently from our confirmands, “I’m more religious than I thought I was.”
So, yes – We are not asking you to assent to something which is not already part of your assent to life. We are asking you to take a risk with your life. That means to strike out on your own, after the good you know to be so and join hands with others in that adventure, to apply your minds to the questions that inevitable address themselves to the honest and the open, and to seek the
To risk your life for the gospel also means to recognize that not all of our life is conducive to a worthwhile life. We are asking you to take the difficult risk and recognize that parts of our lives get stuck and keep jumping back into that hole from which we were just pulled; that sometimes our lives get on the wrong track, like that rich young man’s and seem awfully hard to put back on track.
The point is that no material thing, no discrete act, may dictate whether or not God’s activity is for us or not. As Jesus put it in our reading “You can’t ask me how to live your life.” We are asking you to risk your life for a way that is fluid and changing, that cannot be defined by a set of rules, but which can only be known to the extent that it is worthwhile.
The worthwhile life is just that kind of life which, while not dying in the United States, is finding its expression in little sanctuaries and churches like ours, who seek honesty in expression and worship and unity in diverse ministries, in businesses who are staking their financial success on yardsticks of social justice and environmental restoration, in schools who are open to discovery and excited by the great questions. And by people like you, willing to discover the truth you knew all along and to set your lives by it, like as to a pole star.
Socrates once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. You have discovered the truth of that statement for yourselves, and that discovery also lies at the heart of the Christian call to risk your life for the gospel – for a way steadfast against hatred and devaluing, and for bonds of common humanity that build up, that encourage flourishing in right relation with each other and with the world. Keep on asking the questions and living them too! Amen.